The International English Language Testing System or IELTS is an international standardized test of English language proficiency for non-native English language speakers. It is jointly managed by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge English Language Assessment, and was established in 1989. IELTS is one of the major English-language tests in the world, others being the TOEFL, TOEIC and OPI/OPIc.
IELTS is accepted by most Australian, British, Canadian and New Zealand academic institutions, by over 3,000 academic institutions in the United States, and by various professional organizations across the world.
IELTS is the only Secure English Language Test approved by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) for visa customers applying both outside and inside the UK. It is also a requirement for immigration to Australia and New Zealand. In Canada, IELTS, TEF, or CELPIP are accepted by the immigration authority.
No minimum score is required to pass the test. An IELTS result or Test Report Form is issued to all test takers with a score from “band 1” (“non-user”) to “band 9” (“expert user”) and each institution sets a different threshold. There is also a “band 0” score for those who did not attempt the test. Institutions are advised not to consider a report older than two years to be valid, unless the user proves that they have worked to maintain their level.
In 2014, 2.5 million tests were taken in more than 140 countries, up from 2 million tests in 2012, 1.7 million tests in 2011 and 1.4 million tests in 2009. In 2007, IELTS administered more than one million tests in a single 12-month period for the first time ever, making it the world’s most popular English language test for higher education and immigration.
IELTS was revised again in 1995, with three main changes:
- There was ONE Academic Reading Module and ONE Academic Writing Module (previously there had been a choice of three field-specific Reading and Writing modules)
- The thematic link between the Reading and Writing tasks was removed to avoid confusing the assessment of reading and writing ability
- The General Training Reading and Writing modules were brought into line with the Academic Reading and Writing modules (same timing, length of responses, reporting of scores).
Further revisions went live in 2001 (revised Speaking Test) and 2005 (new assessment criteria for the Writing test).
IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training are designed to cover the full range of ability from non-user to expert user. The Academic version is for test takers who want to study at tertiary level in an English-speaking country or seek professional registration. The General Training version is for test takers who want to work, train, study at a secondary school or migrate to an English-speaking country.
The difference between the Academic and General Training versions is the content, context and purpose of the tasks. All other features, such as timing allocation, length of written responses and reporting of scores, are the same.
IELTS Academic and General Training both incorporate the following features:
- IELTS tests the ability to listen, read, write and speak in English.
- The speaking module is a key component of IELTS. It is conducted in the form of a one-to-one interview with an examiner. The examiner assesses the test taker as he or she is speaking. The speaking session is also recorded for monitoring and for re-marking in case of an appeal against the score given.
- A variety of accents and writing styles have been presented in test materials in order to minimise linguistic bias. The accents in the listening section are generally 80% British, Australian, New Zealander and 20% others (mostly American).
- IELTS is developed by experts at Cambridge English Language Assessment with input from item writers from around the world. Teams are located in the USA, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other English-speaking nations.
- Band scores are used for each language sub-skill (Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking). The Band Scale ranges from 0 (“Did not attempt the test”) to 9 (“Expert User”).
IELTS test structure
There are two modules of the IELTS:
- Academic Module and
- General Training Module
There is also a separate test offered by the IELTS test partners, called IELTS Life Skills:
- IELTS Academic is intended for those who want to enroll in universities and other institutions of higher education and for professionals such as medical doctors and nurses who want to study or practice in an English-speaking country.
- IELTS General Training is intended for those planning to undertake non-academic training or to gain work experience, or for immigration purposes.
- IELTS Life Skills is intended for those who need to prove their English speaking and listening skills at Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) levels A1 or B1 and can be used to apply for a ‘family of a settled person’ visa, indefinite leave to remain or citizenship in the UK.
The IELTS test has four parts
- Listening: 30 minutes (plus 10 minutes’ transfer time)
- Reading: 60 minutes
- Writing: 60 minutes
- Speaking: 11–14 minutes
The test total time is: 2 hours and 44 minutes.
Listening, Reading and Writing are completed in one sitting. The Speaking test may be taken on the same day or up to seven days before or after the other tests.
All test takers take the same Listening and Speaking tests, while the Reading and Writing tests differ depending on whether the test taker is taking the Academic or General Training versions of the test.
The module comprises four sections, with ten questions in each section. It takes 40 minutes: 30 – for testing, plus 10 for transferring the answers to an answer sheet.
Sections 1 and 2 are about every day, social situations.
- Section 1 has a conversation between two speakers (for example, a conversation about travel arrangements)
- Section 2 has one person speaking (for example, a speech about local facilities).
Sections 3 and 4 are about educational and training situations
- Section 3 is a conversation between two main speakers (for example, a discussion between two university students, perhaps guided by a tutor)
- Section 4 has one person speaking about an academic subject.
Each section begins with a short introduction telling the test taker about the situation and the speakers. Then they have some time to look through the questions. The questions are in the same order as the information in the recording, so the answer to the first question will be before the answer to the second question, and so on. The first three sections have a break in the middle allowing test takers to look at the remaining questions. Each section is heard only once.
At the end of the test students are given 10 minutes to transfer their answers to an answer sheet. Test takers will lose marks for incorrect spelling and grammar.
The Reading paper has three sections and texts totaling 2,150-2,750 words. There will be a variety of question types, such as multiple choice, short-answer questions, identifying information, identifying writer’s views, labeling diagrams, completing a summary using words taken from the text and matching information/headings/features in the text/sentence endings. Test takers should be careful when writing down their answers as they will lose marks for incorrect spelling and grammar.
Texts in IELTS Academic
- Three reading texts, which come from books, journals, magazines, newspapers and online resources written for non-specialist audiences. All the topics are of general interest to students at undergraduate or postgraduate level.
Texts in IELTS General Training
- Section 1 contains two or three short texts or several shorter texts, which deal with everyday topics. For example, timetables or notices – things a person would need to understand when living in an English-speaking country.
- Section 2 contains two texts, which deal with work. For example, job descriptions, contracts, training materials.
- Section 3 contains one long text about a topic of general interest. The text is generally descriptive, longer and more complex than the texts in Sections 1 and 2. The text will be taken from a newspaper, magazine, book or online resource.
The Writing paper has two tasks which must both be completed. In task 1 test takers write at least 150 words in about 20 minutes. In task 2 test takers write at least 250 words in about 40 minutes. Test takers will be penalised if their answer is too short or does not relate to the topic. Answers should be written in full sentences (test takers must not use notes or bullet points).
- Task 1: test takers describe a graph, table, chart or diagram in their own words.
- Task 2: test takers discuss a point of view, argument or problem. Depending on the task, test takers may be required to present a solution to a problem, present and justify an opinion, compare and contrast evidence, opinions and implications, and evaluate and challenge ideas, evidence or an argument.
IELTS General Training
- Task 1: test takers write a letter in response to a given everyday situation. For example, writing to an accommodation officer about problems with your accommodation, writing to a new employer about problems managing your time, writing to a local newspaper about a plan to develop a local airport.
- Task 2: test takers write an essay about a topic of general interests. For example, whether smoking should be banned in public places, whether children’s leisure activities should be educational, how environmental problems can be solved.
The speaking test is a face-to-face interview between the test taker and an examiner.
The speaking test contains three sections.
- Section 1: introduction and interview (4–5 minutes). Test takers may be asked about their home, family, work, studies, hobbies, interests, reasons for taking IELTS exam as well as other general topics such as clothing, free time, computers and the internet.
- Section 2: long turn (3–4 minutes). Test takers are given a task card about a particular topic. Test takers have one minute to prepare to talk about this topic. The task card states the points that should be included in the talk and one aspect of the topic which must be explained during the talk. Test takers are then expected to talk about the topic for 2 minutes, after which the examiner may ask one or two questions.
- Section 3: discussions (4–5 minutes). The third section involves a discussion between the examiner and the test taker, generally on questions relating to the theme which they have already spoken about in Section 2.
Test takers receive a score for each test component – Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking. The individual scores are then averaged and rounded to produce an Overall Band Score.
There is no pass or fail. IELTS is scored on a nine-band scale, with each band corresponding to a specified competence in English. Overall Band Scores are reported to the nearest half band.
The following rounding convention applies: if the average across the four skills ends in .25, it is rounded up to the next half band, and if it ends in 5.75, it is rounded up to the next whole band.
The nine bands are described as follows:
|9||Expert User||Has full operational command of the language: appropriate, accurate and fluent with complete understanding.|
|8||Very Good User||Has fully operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies and inappropriacies. Misunderstandings may occur in unfamiliar situations. Handles complex detailed argumentation well.|
|7||Good User||Has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriateness and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.|
|6||Competent User||Has generally effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings. Can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.|
|5||Modest user||Has partial command of the language, coping with overall meaning in most situations, though is likely to make many mistakes. Should be able to handle basic communication in own field.|
|4||Limited User||Basic competence is limited to familiar situations. Has frequent problems in understanding and expression. Is not able to use complex language.|
|3||Extremely Limited User||Conveys and understands only general meaning in very familiar situations. Frequent breakdowns in communication occur.|
|2||Intermittent User||No real communication is possible except for the most basic information using isolated words or short formulae in familiar situations and to meet immediate needs. Has great difficulty understanding spoken and written English.|
|1||Non User||Essentially has no ability to use the language beyond possibly a few isolated words.|
|0||Did not attempt the test||No assessable information provided at all.|
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